November 22, 2008

Kurosawa is Overrated (Japanese Culture Through Film)

One of the highlights of this semester, if not the past year or so, has been sitting in a classroom, watching Japanese films--for bloody credit. Supplemental readings and lectures are provided too, but it's the films I find the most remarkable.

Director Akira Kurosawa garners a lot of attention in North America. He's influenced the likes of Sergio Leone, George Lucas (king of crap), and Spielberg, so maybe that's why. I haven't seen all of Kurosawa's work, but I shit you not, what I have seen pales in comparison to the other Japanese films viewed this semester. What makes Kurosawa films sub-par, in my mind, is their inability to present their themes or moral compass with subtlety--something I think can arguably be considered Western influence. Unlike Miyazaki, who infuses his themes directly into the story, leaving the viewer to draw from the scene what he or she can, Kurosawa beats us over the head with heavy-handed dialogue and obvious imagery. The films are entertaining, sure. But so is Bloodsport--and there's nothing great there by any stretch of the imagination.

Case in point, after viewing Sanjuro and Yojimbo, I decided to try of Kurosawa's more recent films, Dreams. Experimental in comparison to the linear story-lines of his Samurai epics, Dreams tells eight chapter-like tales through the form of dream sequences. Sounds inventive, I know. And to a certain extent is is. I mean, what other form for story-telling is so unrestricted? To a degree, Kurosawa uses this to his advantage. Visually speaking, this film is astounding. Each scene is careful and lush, drawing metaphor from setting as much as from the story nuance (what little there is). Why then does the director insist on falling into what I like to call the Spielberg trap?

Spielberg weakens a lot of his own films by assuming his audience is stupid and spoon-feeding them the "just in case you didn't quite get it" explanation at the end. Watch Minority Report and tell me otherwise. Great film right up until the last half hour or so. Same with A.I. In Dreams, Kurosawa goes the same route. A beautiful village, along a river dotted with water-mills, is a useful enough metaphor for pastoral elegy without having a protagonist lectured to about the perils of modernity by an old wise man.

There are exceptions. Two of the chapters are simply gorgeous. Kurosawa's indictment of war, told though the eyes of a soldier confronted by the ghosts of all his dead comrades, is a work of art. So is the following chapter where an artist steps literally into the world of Van Gogh's paintings, walking through their landscapes and conversing with the artist himself (played by Martin Scorcese). So it's not like Kurosawa doesn't have the knack. He's just too influenced by Western stupidity. His films embody what is wrong with American cinema.

I'm not saying avoid Kurosawa. Far from it. All of his films have something redeemable about them. But you can't consider yourself reasonably knowledgeable about Japanese film-making until you've sampled from the truly great. Directors like Ozu or Takehashi. Try the following films and see if you disagree:

Twenty-Four Eyes
The Taste of Tea
Always: Sunset on Third District
Early Summer
Spirited Away

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Anonymous said...


I won't deny that I think many of his films are fairly run-of-the-mill. ("Sanjuro" is a good example; I think "Yojimbo" deserves a little more respect.) But his visual execution is brilliant.

Have you watched "Seven Samurai" or "Ran"?

Have you studied his use of camera movement, composition, and lenses to communicate ideas and themes?

Sometimes his visual language is expressing the opposite view that the dialogue is expressing, thus creating a tension in what the actual meaning of a given scene is. Not everything communicated in the medium of film is via dialogue...

In fact, I might even say that Ozu's "Tokyo Story" is fairly on the nose. Not because of the dialogue, but because of the visual style. It's pretty clear early on what he's trying to drive home in that film. (And he doesn't stop beating you with it right up to the end.) But don't get me wrong, it's one of the great movies. (But, damn, I wish he'd respect the 180 degree rule a little more!)

Of, course, my favourite director is John Ford, who heavily influenced Kurosawa. (And Ford made a lot of crap on top of this 10 or so masterpieces.) So perhaps I'm just a little more partial towards their styles of filmmaking.

And you're right. I should probably watch "Spirited Away" one of these days.

Harry Tournemille said...

Interesting points. I actually do like Kurosawa's films. There's no arguing that his films are visually impressive (something I think I concede in my post).

I thought the title would be inflammatory enough to induce comments from others. And, truth be told, I think there are better Japanese directors out there.

I try not to focus entirely on dialogue when I watch a film, but it is an interest of mine. So many films use it in such a didactic manner. A ham-fisted manner used by Kurosawa...and with seeming reckless abandon.

But I hear you about Ozu. I have no doubt his films are open to criticism, especially his later ones. The few I have seen have been really interesting both stylistically (long shots with camera fixed in a low position etc) and story (the subtlest of changes to show the dissolution of family).

I understand your proclivity for film-making style. Couldn't imagine you thinking any other way, really.

I guess I look for story more than anything else. What is the director saying? How is he saying it? What is it about the film that speaks of something larger than the story itself. That sort of thing.

Vili said...

An interesting view, and I can sort of see where you are coming from. It is also perhaps a result of something that Kurosawa himself was actually trying to achieve: in his view films, while working on multiple levels, were still supposed to be easy to understand. To him, there was no point in making movies that no one could really relate to.

This does sometimes result in the director hammering down the message with little subtlety. Although, having said that, most of his movies are actually more complex than they seem on the surface. For, when you start thinking about them, the messages Kurosawa is putting out often turn out to be paradoxical, contradictory to each other, or in some other ways anything but straightforward. I personally think that there is something very interesting going on with Kurosawa if you stop to think about the stories.

You only mention Sanjuro, Yojimbo and Dreams, so I get the impression that those are the only Kurosawa films that you have seen? I'm just wondering because all three are experiments of sorts, the first two in comedy and the last one in... well, something else.

Especially Yojimbo and Sanjuro are very light-hearted attempts where the director is clearly having fun, rather than concentrating on socio-political issues, as is his norm. (Yojimbo is also an experiment in many film techniques.) Yojimbo in particular aims to be the direct opposite of subtle -- although even there the final message is somewhat paradoxical.

In any case, I would actually say that none of the three films are very typical Kurosawa movies, if there is a "typical" Kurosawa film out there. In case you haven't seen more, I would suggest watching something like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Rashomon, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Record of a Living Being, High and Low or Red Beard.

Seven Samurai and Ran, which Jason mentioned, are also magnificent films, although for a number of reasons I tend not to suggest them for those still new to Kurosawa.

Um. Sorry about the ramble. :) An interesting post, though!

Harry Tournemille said...

Good analysis. On top of those three films, I've also watched "The Bad Sleep Well." But you are most right (Jason too) that I need to watch more of them--which creates a reasonable flaw in my critique.

Most of my criticism is directed at Dreams, where Kurosawa seemed to be his own foil.

Thanks for the recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Nice thoughts, both of you.

On a side note, I just wanted to recommend the BFI Classic's monographs on Kurosawa's films, as well as other Japanese films (including Spirited Away). The one on Seven Samurai was outstanding:

Sam said...

When my brother read your article the veins on his neck started bulging.

Seriously, judging Kurosawa without seeing Seven Samurai or Ran is like judging Shakespeare just based on "Shakespeare in Love." And don't miss Throne of Blood, his MacBeth adaptation.

Seriously, Ran is probably the best film ever made not starring Kurt Russell.

As for Yojimbo, it almost seems like he ripped the plot off from one of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, doesn't it?

Harry Tournemille said...

Your brother has a neck?

I'll be checking those films out. Again, the majority of my criticism stems from watching "Dreams" which, aside from maybe 2 of the sequences, is so heavy-handed I thought I was back in church.

Vili said...

Sam wrote: "As for Yojimbo, it almost seems like he ripped the plot off from one of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, doesn't it?"

I don't know if that was meant to be ironic, but I guess it would be worth pointing out that the first of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns (the ones with Clint Eastwood), "A Fistful of Dollars", is a direct remake of Yojimbo (done without Kurosawa's consent, which led to Kurosawa suing Leone).

If you are interested, I have done a comparison of the two films, which also includes Last Man Standing and (later in the topic) Django, which both use Yojimbo as their sources.

Harry Tournemille said...

Actually Sam, to respond further...

I disagree in part with your assessment that failing to view certain Kurosawa films makes him free from criticism. And "Shakespeare in Love" is not an actual Shakespeare play is it? "Dreams" is certainly a Kurosawa film, and its simply not that great.

Even if I view Ran and Seven Samurai (which I intend to do) and love the hell out of them, they wouldn't negate my impression of him here.

What is one supposed to say if a director's film-making weakens rather than strengthens over his career? "Remember that one great movie" seems trite.

Of course, to be fair, the heading of my post is completely inflammatory. It should have read something like "Kurosawa: The Decline" or something pretentious like that.

Sam said...

Harry: All's I'm saying is, you can't judge a filmmaker by the shitty film he made when he was 90 years old, delusional and probably senile. Actually you can and did. Let me rephrase and clarify: only a Kwantlen student would make such a judgement.

VII: Nice comparison. Next you'll be telling me 'Magnificent Seven' was a Kurosawa ripoff too.

And while Sanjuro isn't an intellectual masterpiece, it's a fun film. Remember 'fun'? Ozu's never heard of fun.

Harry Tournemille said...

This coming from a guy who likes Kurt Russell? Top Gun? I bet you have a Con Air T-shirt too, 'cause that movie was just so way fun.

Or is it the Care Bear DVDs at home, next to your Criterion Collection, double-disc, behind-the-scenes take on Cormac McCarthy's love-in with Oprah.

Sam said...

All right, Mr K-W for Kwality, here's my hifalutin (Milchian?) explanation.

Rather than seeing films as being in competition with literary forms (e.g. the novel, the play, the epic poem) I believe films have their own strengths. As David Mamet notes in his 'Jafsie and John Henry' book of essays, the film originally started as a carnival entertainment--the nickelodeon. Its function was to amuse, distract, titillate--in short, to entertain.

The evolution of film coincides with narrative, but is not dependent on narrative--narrative is in fact superfluous. The essence of film is entertainment.

Movies such as Top Gun and Tombstone, which you perhaps scorn, are in fact more 'true' to the essence of film than, say, Ozu or Bergman or Tarkovsky, all of whom I deeply respect. They play to film's strengths as a medium, while Ozu tries to shoehorn philosophy, Noh drama, and elaborate narratives into a medium not built for that. While that makes Ozu an innovator, it also makes him quite ignorant of the asses-in-seats, entertainment notion of the form, which motivated Shakespeare to write plays, Dickens to write serial novels, and Kurt Russell to make films such as Tombstone and Big Trouble in Little China. They are 'entertainments,' primarily, and that's not a derogatory comment.

Books, on the other hand, should be philosophically dense, because they do that well. Don Quixote is a dense, challenging novel, as are the works of Melville, Dostoevsky, Joyce, all the way up to Cormac McCarthy.

The first widely-circulated book was the Bible, a book which, while it holds no spiritual value for me, remains a dense, thought-provoking, philosophically-challenging and subtle work of art. The first films were images such as two men dancing and a train going past. They're profoundly different mediums.

I like challenging films, but I also recognize that they are a cinematic novelty. What's great about Kurosawa is that he's done dense films (any of his Shakespeare adaptations) as well as entertainments, and in his best work he accomplishes both. That's also what's great about David Milch--his work is subtle, but it's also arresting. Dostoevky and Dickens wrote murder mysteries. Hamlet is a ghost story. John Ford and Eastwood manage to walk the same line.

Okay some of that is horseshit, but I'm not saying which part. And do not insult the care bears again.

Harry Tournemille said...

Interesting themes, Sam, though I think partly flawed. Film's originations are not meant to restrict its potential. A director's ability to implement philosophical complexities does not denote an unnecessary indulgence.

In my mind, good film is art. And I despise art that exists for the soul purpose of entertainment. Every great book you and I have ever read has spoken to something "more" than the story on the page. Same with great film. It pushes the viewer to consider, not to just mindlessly sit back and be amused.

As far as the Bible is concerned, its canonization was designed to convert and control a large amount of people for ideological reasons. I doubt any of us hold other works of literature to that same motive.

The medium of film may not be as conducive to density as literature, but all that suggests is the need to be more creative, to push film's assets.

Take No Country For Old Men, probably the most literary film I've ever seen. Not only does it wrestle with complicated themes of nihilism, randomness--all things existential, it reveals them through careful dialogue, meticulous settings etc. The ending of that film is pure, refined art. Not because Tom Cruise wept in the ocean while his buddy died in his arms but because the Coen brothers recognized the literary capabilities of film. A little abstract, I know. But that's all I got for now.

You can have the last word.

Sam said...

Ironic, then, that NCFOM started as a screenbplay.

Unknown said...

I have to agree with Sam, saying Kurosawa doesn't deserve his reputation without having seen the works primarily responsible for that reputation does not lend credibility to your argument.